New research suggests that having a firmly held religious belief can provide a sense of increased purpose in life among those who are socially disconnected.

The findings, which were published in the Journal of Personality, indicate that religion can be one way that individuals cope with the reduced sense purpose in life that is associated with loneliness.

“My program of research broadly looks at different ways people can cope with feelings of social disconnection,” said study author Todd Chan, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan.

“This paradox of feeling socially disconnected has always interested me: To feel less disconnected, people would ideally increase or improve their social contacts and sense of belonging, but this is not always a feasible solution given that an inherent part of social disconnection is that people have poor relationships or feel rejected.

“Intertwined with the problem is that other people are (or are perceived to be) unsupportive or unavailable,” Chan explained. “Thus, rather than just suggesting that people need to ‘get out there’ and socialize more, I became interested in examining ways people can cope with feelings of disconnection when other people may not be appealing or available.”

“One way may be leveraging non-human relationships. Previous research has shown that people who are socially disconnected are more likely to see human-like qualities in things like God and pets, but it is largely unclear whether this view leads to better outcomes in the face of social disconnection.”

The researchers analyzed data from 19,775 American adults who had participated in three nationally-representative studies. They found that individuals with low levels of social connection tended to report lower levels of purpose in life. However, among these socially disconnected individuals, religiosity predicted higher levels of purpose in life.

“People provide purpose. People who feel like they belong and well supported by their friendships consistently have a higher sense of purpose and direction in life, and people lose purpose when they feel socially disconnected,” Chan told PsyPost.

“However, our research here shows that having a belief system that ‘substitutes’ for some of the functions of human relationships, like feeling valued and supported by God, may allow people who feel disconnected to restore some of this purpose that social relationships would normally provide. This compensation may benefit people who are disconnected over time.”

“Interestingly, being religious when you are already socially connected confers minimal additional benefit for people’s sense of purpose in life. The main benefit appears to be when people feel disconnected and need to leverage the reassuring tenets of religion and their relationship with God.”

Religion can provide a sense of increased purpose, but it’s not an entirely adequate substitute for social interaction.

“Although our current research suggests that religion and God may compensate for some of the purpose that social relationships would otherwise provide, it did not restore purpose to a level comparable to that of people who feel socially connected,” Chan explained. “Regardless of religiosity, people who feel socially disconnected report much lower levels of purpose in life than people who feel socially connected.

“Leveraging God and religion may be a way of coping with disconnection in the interim that is better than nothing, but these results certainly do not suggest that people should rely upon religion or God for purpose over people. Quality human connections are still a primary and enduring source of purpose in life.”

“Further, we compared individuals who were high vs. low in religiosity. It remains unclear how people who do not strongly believe in God can alternately compensate for lost purpose when they feel socially disconnected by using other non-religious belief systems,” Chan told PsyPost.

“It may seem striking to some people that a sense of purpose is driven so centrally by social relationships, compared to things like one’s career. Purpose is future-oriented and motivational, where people feel that future goals and directions are significant and worth pursuing. However, these strivings are invariably intertwined with other people. We pursue goals with other people, with the help of other people, or in favor of other people.”

The study, “When God is your only friend: Religious beliefs compensate for purpose in life in the socially disconnected“, was authored by Todd Chan, Nicholas M. Michalak, and Oscar Ybarra.